On Monday, Aug. 21, 2017 a total eclipse of the sun will make its way across America. The last time the contiguous United States experienced one was in 1979. But it will be the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in 99 years and the first to be visible only in this country since before it even was a country.
The track of the Moon’s shadow will cut diagonally across America from Oregon to South Carolina, traveling at speeds ranging from almost 3,000 miles an hour when it appears off the coast of Oregon, to about 1,500 miles an hour where it says goodbye to Charleston, North Carolina and then trails off the edge of the earth.
Its cross country trip will take 93 minutes.
All of the continental United States will see at least a partial eclipse. But only those in the 68-mile-wide path of totality will see the disc of the sun completely blocked out by the moon.
How big a difference is it to see a partial versus a total eclipse? Its been compared to watching a sparkler versus an aerial shell exploding across the 4th of July night sky; or enjoying a beautiful local waterfall over trying to get one’s mind around the majesty of Victoria Falls.
For most locations along the 68-mile-wide path of totality, the beginning of the eclipse to full totality will take about 90 minutes.
Inside this path, the Moon will completely cover the Sun. The earth’s landscape will be plunged into an eerie twilight, similar to the amount of darkness that occurs about 20 minutes after sunset. Temperatures can drop by 20 degrees or more. Birds will go to roost, dairy cows will return to their barns, and frogs and crickets will begin their evening choruses.
The corona is an aura of plasma that surrounds the photosphere, the visible surface of the sun. From the sun’s surface, it extends about five millions miles out into space. For reasons scientists don’t yet fully understand, the corona is much hotter than the sun itself, up to 450 times hotter. But it’s also a million times less bright than the sun.
And this why the corona it is not visible to us except during an eclipse or by the use of a coronagraph, a telescope that employs a disc to block the sun’s bright surface. But even the best coronagraph can’t provide as clear a view of the corona as what the moon drops into our lap during a total solar eclipse. And this is why astronomers go crazy over them and why so many will be eagerly coming from all over the world to photograph, film, map, measure, study and explore every facet of this awesome astronomical phenomenon.
For there in the corona, and particularly its inner ring, lie the keys to understanding many other things about the universe, the sun and even our own planet.
In that sense, the corona is the Rosetta Stone of astrophysics. For once fully deciphered, scientists can then turn and unlock many of the other mysteries of a universe the Psalmist declares
“….pours out speech and…reveals knowledge.”
But here we come to a very interesting and even peculiar aspect of a solar eclipse, one that makes an extraordinary event even all the more extraordinary: Why should the moon so perfectly block the disc of the sun and make the corona to visible?
For if the moon was a bit larger in size or was closer to the earth, its shadow would block out both the sun and the corona.
Or, if it was smaller or further away, the much brighter disc of the sun would drown out the corona’s radiance.
And again, its mysteries would be locked away.
Why should the moon, which is 400 times smaller than the sun, when in the right place in its elliptical orbit around our planet, be 400 times closer to us than the sun, thus making a near perfect total solar eclipse with a visible corona possible?
To scientists under the spell of a purely naturalistic view of creation—meaning there is no Creator, that the universe just happened and just happens to be the way it is—it’s all just a coincidence, a happy—for us—accident.
But mere happenstance transforms into glorious design for those who believe that,
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their speech goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
The Hebrew word here translated “speech” means literally a “measuring line” or a ruler, echoing a theme that is stated in several other places in the Bible: that the cosmos was designed and constructed by and through a singular Wisdom of infinite precision and complexity. From a purely rational human perspective, this cosmic blueprint yields the laws of science and the beautiful symmetry and surprising effectiveness of mathematics, and further explains why modern science, as historian Edward Grant observed,
”…emerged in the seventeenth century in (Christian) Western Europe
and nowhere else.”[i]
But along with this rational, scientific dimension, there’s a prophetic or symbolic—one could even call it artistic—aspect to all of this as well. For the Bible declares in the Book of Genesis that the Creator set the sun and the moon in the sky not just to illuminate our world, to regulate seasons and mark the flow of time—for astrophysical purposes in other words. They are also for signs; to point to key truths regarding God’s eternal plan.[ii]
Like any great playwright or theatrical producer, God designed our world and its surrounding heavens to not only serve as a physical stage upon which the drama of redemptive history would unfold, but to also reflect: to provide shading, greater meaning and nuance to this drama.
And there are no more important stage props in this regard than the greater light that rules the day and the lesser light that rules the night.[iii]
There isn’t the time and this is not the place to explore all the wonder to which these two great lights point. Stay tuned for the documentary, “All the World’s a Stage” where we will examine the redemptive/historical aspects of each of the six stages of creation.
For now, we’ll close with two last thoughts.
First, a tangential one that may or may not mean anything. As we’ve seen, the number 400 looms large over a solar eclipse. Totality happens because the moon is roughly 400 times smaller than the sun but is 400 times closer to the earth.
Well, it also so happens that the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, from which the sign of the Christian cross is in part derived, has both a meaning and a number associated with it. Its meaning is “sign” or “signature.” And its number value is precisely 400.
In addition, as we saw in Genesis 1:14, functioning as signs was part of the Creator’s design for the sun and the moon. The Hebrew word for “sign” here is made up of three letters. Each has a numerical value, as the ancient Hebrews used their letters to represent numbers as well. When you total the value of the three numbers you get…well, we’re over 98% of the way there: 407.
But finally, there should be no dispute from a Christian perspective as to one key aspect of a solar eclipse. In revealing the corona and the astrophysical Rosetta Stone it represents, can there be any question that the Creator God intended men to be scientists and understand the universe; to, in the words of the Johannes Kepler, the devout Christian who is often called the Father of Modern Astronomy, “think God’s thoughts after him?”
This is something wonderful to chew on, particularly as we watch the moon slip across the disc of the sun and throw our world into a temporary darkness but for the mysterious, hot light bleeding around its edges.
In what is very likely a line from an early hymn of the Church, we are told that Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity who stands outside of time and space, created both time and space.
“He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…”
And now time, space and, yes, eclipses show forth His handiwork.
On August 21, remember that He choreographed this cosmic dance. That He did it to show forth His glory as well as to teach and awe His earthly audience.
For it all points to the Omega Point, the Singularity to which all of creation groans and moves.
And this day will be yet another total eclipse for the Son.
[i] [i] Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p.168.
[ii] Genesis 1:14